23 September 2012

The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact

Soviet troops on the march in Korea, October 1945

What follows is a review of a book, The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact, from the pen of the Russian diplomatic historian Boris Slavinsky. The book is a little dry at times, but that is to be expected considering the source material it tasks itself with bringing to light is mainly made up by reports from diplomats. Despite that there are pieces of very important information in there, some of which may not be found anywhere else. Here are some of the things I learned reading it:

  • The Tripartite Pact was presented by Ribbentrop as a treaty aimed at deterring Americans from entering the German and Italian war in Europe and the Japanese war in the Far East. Moreover it was sold to the Japanese as a treaty the Soviet Union would be encouraged to join herself so as to boost the capacity of the alliance to deter the Americans. Specifically to address the concerns of the Japanese the text of the treaty included an article which spelled out that the pact was not aimed at the Soviet Union.

  • Albeit the opposite is widely believed, Stalin was actually receptive of the idea of joining the Tripartite Pact under certain conditions. It was actually the case that when the USSR stated its conditions, which included the end of German presence in Finland and German assistance in securing a Soviet presence on the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, that it was rebuked by Hitler and nothing came of it.*

  • The Japanese were for the main part taken aback by the German invasion of the Soviet Union and did not regard it as a welcome course of action, but as a severe breach of trust by the Germans. Nonetheless the Japanese continued to see Germany, which after all was at war with the British Empire and on a collision course with the United States, as a key ally.

  • Despite the initial shock, the Japanese nonetheless saw the German invasion of the Soviet Union as a likely opportunity for their own territorial aggrandizement and had every intention of eventually breaking the freshly-signed Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact of April 1941. They planned to attack the Soviet Union to take a large chunk of the Russian Far East for themselves, but only once the USSR would be all but beaten by the Germans. Appropriately they undertook a covert mobilization in July-August 1941 as a result of which their army in Manchuria doubled in size. Initially the Japanese figured their own invasion may come in 1941, had by September 1941 moved its projected date to spring of 1942, then again postponed it for the third time to 1943, and finally moved it back indefinitely.

  • Once the war in the Pacific against the United States of America begun to go badly for the Japanese, they became all the more appreciative of the fact they were at least not at war with the American-allied USSR, but had a neutrality pact with Moscow. What is more they based their whole hope of avoiding total defeat in the war around this fact. They believed that at the latest when Germany would be defeated irreconcilable differences between the USSR and the two Anglo-Saxon powers would be likely to break into the open. The Japanese hoped that by this time they would still be strong enough to be able to take advantage of this situation and evade a comprehensive defeat in their war against the United States and Great Britain.

  • In this sense, the later Soviet claim that it was their entry into the war against Japan on the American side which made the Japanese surrender has a certain fundamental credibility to it. The Japanese indeed regarded the possible Soviet entry into the war as a catastrophic event, and a point in time when the war would surely be lost for them. Not only because they would be at war with two military superpower at the same time, but because it would mean the Soviets and the Americans had been able to definitely postpone their inevitable fallout until after the Japanese were defeated and so there would be no opportunity for Japan to profit from it.

  • Nonetheless, in the end the Soviet declaration of war was not the cause of Japanese capitulation, as it came too late — the Japanese had moved to accept the Potsdam declaration and proclaim the unconditional surrender of their armed forced just hours earlier after the news of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima had set in. In reality both the Soviet offensive against the Japanese army in Manchuria and the American nuclear bombing of Nagasaki were superfluous to forcing, or speeding up Japanese capitulation. Tokyo had already made the decision to order its armed forces to lay down its arms before either had taken place. In reality both the comprehensive defeat of the Japanese in Manchuria and the leveling of Nagasaki had consequence only as a demonstration of the Red Army's considerable might and fighting prowess in a conventional war and the power of USAAF's new unconventional weapon.

  • Initially the planned Soviet offensive into Manchuria was to begin on August 10th, but after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima Stalin, on August 7th, brought the date forward and ordered the attack to begin the next day, so as to be certain Japanese government did not order its troops to lay down their arms before the invasion begun.

  • Late in the war Japan also hoped the Soviet Union could be moved to mediate a peace between herself and the United States of America, and approached the Soviets with an offer for them to do so. If the Soviets were willing to act in such a manner, Japan was ready to make great concessions to the USSR including territorial concessions that would come on top of concessions in return for the USSR extending the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in 1945. The Soviet ambassador in Tokyo reported to the Kremlin the Japanese would likely be willing to part with both southern Sakhalin and the northern Kuriles if the Soviet Union would accommodate their request. 

From the information provided by the book it is impossible not to conclude the Soviet decision to break the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact and begin a war against Japan was pure folly. The fact the USSR broke a treaty with Japan and attacked it once it was all but beaten is not necessarily problematic since Japan was going to do exactly the same in 1941 had Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union gone only slightly better. It is problematic, however, from the point of view that it produced tens of thousands of personal tragedies across the USSR for territorial gains that could have easily been made without firing a shot. 

The one lasting gain of the Soviet-Japanese war of 1945 for the Soviet Union was its acquisition in the war of the southern half of the island of Sakhalin and of the Kurile Islands chain. It is the case, however, the USSR did not need to throw itself against the Japanese army in Manchuria and suffer 12,000 dead and 24,000 wounded Red Army men, right after the country had already lost so many people in the Soviet-German war, to take possession of these territories. It could have just as easily moved in to occupy them once Japan had capitulated to the United States, or alternatively took the Japanese on their offer to try and mediate between Tokyo and Washington and took them over with the Japanese' consent.

As it was Stalin proved eager to have more Soviet soldiers killed and maimed for little more than the dubious glory of having smashed the Japanese army in Manchuria in an impressive, but pointless show of military prowess, when there was greater prestige, along with a moral high ground, to be had by rebuking the allies, refusing to begin a war of choice against Japan, and coming out in favor of peace talks that would end the war without further bloodshed on all sides.

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